Game Week: Pittsburgh

It was 120 years ago that Robert Louis Stevenson sat in his bed and wrote his novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A vivid and eerie allegory depicting one man’s internal conflict between good and evil, some scholars and critics have suggested that the book is about the struggles of people with bipolar disorder. There are others who say that it represents various social and political schisms from the 19th century Scotland of Stevenson’s youth. Both groups have it all wrong. Stevenson was a true visionary, as he clearly meant for his story to be a symbol of the 2007 University of Pittsburgh football team.

Like Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and his alter ego, Pitt football is a story of contrasts this year. They won their first two games in convincing fashion. They have lost their last two just as convincingly. Their defense is ranked 9th in the country, while their offense is ranked 103rd. This dichotomy has led to a 2-3 record and a football team that needs a win over Navy to get to .500 at the season’s midpoint. With the bulk of their Big East schedule remaining– including games against West Virginia, South Florida, Rutgers, Louisville, and Cincinnati– one figures that this game is a must-win for Pitt if they want to have any prayer of getting to a bowl game.

Pitt’s fast start and subsequent slide can be attributed in large part to its schedule. After opening with wins against Eastern Michigan and Grambling, Pitt has since gone on a three game losing streak at the hands of Michigan State, UConn, and Virginia– teams that are a combined 14-3 so far. The schedule, however, is only part of the story. The team, particularly on offense, has been hit hard by injuries.

With the departure of quarterback Tyler Palko, most people expected the Pitt offense to be a little less potent this year, at least in the early going. Unfortunately for the Panthers, losing Palko was only the beginning. Before the season even started, Pitt lost its best returning offensive player. Wide receiver Derek Kinder, a Biletnikoff Award semifinaslist and all-conference selection a year ago, tore an ACL in fall practice. Palko’s successor, junior Bill Stull, injured the thumb on his throwing hand in the season opener and has been out ever since. Starting right tackle Jason Pinkston suffered a shoulder injury against Michigan State and has been lost for the year.

Stull’s injury has been particularly hard on the Pitt offense. His replacements have been a pair of freshmen, and both have struggled. Kevan Smith started the first three games after Stull went down. After throwing for 202 yards and a touchdown on 15-22 passing vs. Grambling, Smith was dreadful against Michigan State, throwing for only 85 yards and two interceptions. The following week, Smith was 3-9 for only 29 yards and an interception in the first half against Connecticut, and was benched in favor of Pat Bostick. While trying to overcome a 27-7 halftime deficit, Bostick threw for 230 yards as Pitt opened up the offense in the second half, but his three interceptions kept the Panthers from mounting any real comeback. The next week, Bostick went 18-31 for 181 yards and a touchdown, but it wasn’t enough as Pitt gave up 27 points in the first quarter.

Playing a couple of freshman quarterbacks has forced Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh to call games very conservatively. Despite trailing 27-0 after one quarter against Virginia, Bostick only threw 3 passes in the first half. To compensate, Cavanaugh has tinkered with some ways to get the ball to freshman running back LeSean McCoy more often. McCoy is second only to Rutgers’ Ray Rice as the best running back that Navy will see this year, and is joined in the backfield by another talented runner, junior LaRod Stephens-Howling.  To get both runners onto the field at the same time, Cavanaugh has experimented with the “Wildcat” formation that puts McCoy at quarterback, inspired by the Arkansas offense and the way they use Darren McFadden. It’s had only limited success. Without much concern for passes going over their heads, teams have stopped the Pitt offense by keying in on McCoy. Given that, McCoy’s 100 rushing yards per game average is a real testament to his talent.

The conservative game plans appear to be changing this week. Cavanaugh has told the Pittsburgh media that against Navy, he’ll loosen the reins on his young quarterback a little bit. “We’re certainly not going to let him cut loose and air it out on every down,” Cavanaugh told the Pittsburgh Past-Gazette. “But there’s going to be a better balance, hopefully, in the play-calling. So I’ve got to do a better job of that, and as long as he’s making good decisions and getting completions, we’ll try to be a little more balanced.”

If I was an offensive coordinator with a freshman quarterback, I too would probably choose the week I was playing the team ranked last in both pass efficiency defense and sacks to let my quarterback stretch his legs a little.

So balance looks like the name of the game this week for the Pitt offense. A little less McCoy, a little more Bostick. Navy has struggled defensively against just about anything that’s been thrown at it so far this year, so it doesn’t look like Pitt will be hurting either way. My guess for the Pitt gameplan is to start by running McCoy, setting up easy play action passes and allowing Bostick to gain some confidence. As long as Pitt isn’t falling behind, Bostick will keep passing. If the offense starts to struggle a little, then expect to see it get jumpstarted by heavy doses of LeSean McCoy running behind an offensive line that averages 6’4″, 315. No matter what kind of problems Pitt has had offensively this year, this game will be a huge challenge for the Navy defense.

The Pitt defense hasn’t been without injury either. Starting defensive tackle Gus Mustakas tore an ACL in the Grambling game and is out for the year. Pitt has been able to recover, though, with a trio of 290-pound DTs to replace him. Linebacker Scott McKillop has been outstanding anchoring the middle of Pitt’s 4-3 scheme, leading the Big East in tackles with 11.4 per game. He had 17 against Michigan State and another 15 against Virginia. But while McKillop has played well, the defense as a whole hasn’t lived up to their lofty ranking in the last two games, giving up 78 points. Turnovers by the offense and bad field position have a lot to do with that, but so do 3rd down conversions; Pitt has slipped to 60th in the country in 3rd down defense. In their last game against Virginia, the Panthers allowed them to convert on six of their first eight 3rd down attempts– no small factor in the Cavaliers building a 27-0 lead. Could this be indicative of a lack of discipline? Pitt hasn’t given up a 100-yard rusher this year, but stopping the average college running game is a lot different than stopping the triple option. It’s only a small weakness in the armor of what looks like a solid defense.

For Navy to win this game, the Pitt offense needs to make some mistakes. That makes it crucial for Navy to prevent the big play. Getting pressure on Bostick might be a tall order for the Navy defense, but the freshman QB should make a mistake or two on his own if he’s forced to take enough snaps.

I know that Pitt is having problems right now, but don’t underestimate how tough it is to take on a BCS team. If Stanford’s win over USC teaches us anything, it’s that even struggling BCS teams have enough talent to upset the #1 team in the nation if they play hard and limit their mistakes. There’s plenty of talent waiting for the Mids in Pittsburgh. A win over Pitt would be a major accomplishment for this Navy team.

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